Photographing Wildlife in the Fall

September 30, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Moose_35Moose_35A bull moose (Alces aces) with shedding antlers stands in willows on a rainy day at Brainard Lake National Recreation Area, Colorado. Fall is a popular season for most nature photographers. The colors of the trees and plants from the east coast to the west coast, from the tundra of Alaska to the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah turn the landscapes into an artist's palette of vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow and gold. Pronghorn_buck_FGNRA_2015_1Pronghorn_buck_FGNRA_2015_1A pronghorn antelope buck (Antilocapra americana) looks directly at the camera as he sports some sage stuck in his horns in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area near Green River, Wyoming.

But fall is also a busy season for wildlife. Many of the large mammals go into their mating season. Starting in late July through December, the moose, bison, elk, pronghorn, deer, mountain goats and bighorn sheep focus on finding mates and not much else. Birds migrate through on their way to their winter destinations. Bears begin their hyperphagia stage where they eat tens of thousands of calories a day to bulk up for their long winter nap. And the small mammals get very busy building cache piles of food or build up enough fat reserves to make it through the winter.

And all of this could be framed in photographs with beautiful fall color. 

But where do you start to photograph these activities and colors?

Elk_RMNP_2016_16Elk_RMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) starts a bugle call during the fall rut in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado First, be patient, very patient. Wildlife photography is about watching, observing, learning and being ready for the behaviors. Anticipating the behavior, such as a bugle from an elk as it is walking towards the camera or the horn clash of two large bighorn rams takes some understanding of why they do it. For example, bighorn rams will back up just prior to rearing up on their hind legs and then coming in for the clash. Focus on one of the rams and track with it through the clash so that your camera will not focus on the background in the space between the rams. 

Black_bear_Waterton_2015_4Black_bear_Waterton_2015_4A black bear (Ursus americanus) sits in a scrub oak tree to eat the ripening acorns in Waterton Canyon near Littleton, Colorado

Next, show the beauty of the season. The vibrant color of leaves on trees will reflect in water. Try framing a colorful duck swimming through it. Meadows of grasses will turn into warm tones of golden color during the early fall season before it goes completely brown for the winter. Yellow leaves on trees will create a warm glow on an animal walking through a wooded area.

Mallard_duck_7Mallard_duck_7A pair of mallard ducks swim across Belmar Lake in the early morning steam after a spring snowstorm in Lakewood, Colorado.

​Another option for a photo setting is to predict weather patterns. I call this the clash of seasons. Especially in places like Alaska, Wyoming and Colorado, snow may fall on the colorful landscape. Fresh snow mixed across the colorful reds of the alpine tundra offers a nice feeling of the season. Fresh snow on yellow aspen trees as an elk walks by will also provide that feeling of clashing seasons. In many areas, the days remain warm yet the overnight temperatures drop significantly or weather patterns may bring in a cold front after a few warm days. These changes in temperature will create rising mist and fog from warm bodies of water in the cool morning temperatures.

Wood_duck_25Wood_duck_25A wood duck drake (Aix sponsa) swims through gold, red and yellow fall colors reflected on the water surface at Sterne Lake in Littleton, Colorado

The progression of fall starts early in parts of Alaska and the high country of the Rocky Mountains. Moose will begin to bulk up in late July and into August as they prepare to make it through the rut where they will burn off up to 20 percent of their body weight. Bison begin their rut with their grunts and battles for the cows in early August. The plants of the tundra begin to change into deep reds and vibrant oranges in August. The late salmon runs in Alaska in late August and early September bring out large quantities of brown bears looking to build up fat for hibernation. 

Pika_3Pika_3A pika carries a mouthful of grass across the rocks near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The willows of Alaska turn into fields of red in late August and early September, providing great landscape scenery for rutting moose. Moose and elk will shed the velvet from their antlers in early September and be in full swing of their rut by late September. Pronghorn antelope bucks will thrash about in sage bushes to leave their scent markings as a warning to other bucks to stay away from their does during September. Black bears will be found in apple orchards, oak forests and berry patches bulking up on high-calorie foods for hibernation. As the elk rut winds down in mid October, the mule deer and white-tailed deer will start to bulk up for their rut in November and December. The bighorn sheep and mountain goats wind out the fall rut season in late November and early December with battle of their own over the females.

Golden-mantled_Ground_Squirrel_1Golden-mantled_Ground_Squirrel_1An overweight golden-mantled ground squirrel stands on a rock begging for food along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Don't forget about the small mammals. They will also be busy building stock piles of food in preparation for long winter months without access to plants and bugs.

As the rut season winds down for each animal, consider whether it will be worth photographing them. Tines will break on bull moose and elk as well as deer bucks as a result of fighting. All of the males will get tired, thinner and potentially injured during the rut. 

Bighorn_Rams_EyeBighorn_Rams_EyeA bighorn ram (Ovis canadensis) looks at the camera through the horn of another ram in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody, Wyoming

A final thought for photographing wildlife in the fall. Fall is hunting season. Primarily I mention this for your own safety. If you are out in an area where hunters may be located, be sure to wear hunter's orange, such as in a vest or hat. Check local regulations for safety attire. Another consideration is that animals may be more skittish and more difficult to photograph.

Enjoy the fall season. It is my favorite because of its beauty and the wide variety of photo opportunities.  Moose_GTNP_2015_1Moose_GTNP_2015_1A bull moose (Alces alces) walks across the Gros Ventre River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming


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